Inspiration / Lifestyle & Opinion

Andrew Jefford: Champagne, Oysters and a Worrying Environmental Trend


Andrew Jefford Andrew Jefford

Not snowy white, it's true – but Christmas here is often bitingly cold. It was around New Year during our first Languedoc winter that the garden thermometer plunged to -11°C. You can smell the wood fires as you cycle around the village through the ebbing year's grey gloom.

Christmas in the Languedoc can be bitterly cold

Family life exerts its gravitational pull most strongly at Christmas, so those without a ready apparatus of cousins, grandchildren, uncles and step-sisters are obliged to improvise. We have friends from Martinique who become our Christmas family: Jean-Michel, Jacqui and the twins, Brice and Fabio – the same age as our eldest son, and indulgent friends to our younger son, too. Christmas Eve means a long and chaotic dinner together of fishy extravagance. The boat gets pushed out as far as it will go (we had turbot with Meursault one year) but my favourite course is always the first: oysters.

These are a Christmas ritual in France: as oyster farmers deplete their 'parks', the wooden boxes of a double dozen, decoratively draped with a little seaweed, stack up in the supermarket aisles. Hospital urgence doctors, meanwhile, ready themselves for an assortment of digital injuries inflicted by stubby knives, ragged calcium carbonate and the tense adductor muscles of bivalves clinging to life. Jean-Michel and I are not beyond risk. Neither of us is a practiced écailler (yes, the French have a name for professional oyster-shuckers and seafood dressers). The brine and shell fragments, mingled with the sodden tea-towels we use to grasp the recalcitrant creatures, make a mess of gritty white mud on the table top.

There's annual disagreement about the juices: Jean-Michel pours away, preferring the bared flesh in tender isolation, whereas I struggle to keep each mollusc brimful of its delicious demi-brine: a marine liqueur seemingly distilled from umami, wrack and wind. We also disagree, mildly enough, about origin: Jean-Michel is an Atlanticist, convinced of the superiority of Belons and Fines de Claires. I have a soft spot for the smaller, less voluptuous Bouzigues oysters from the Bassin de Thau nearby. Argument is joined each year, each year inconclusively. In warmer months, I'd always pick Picpoul de Pinet as a wine partner – a salt-lemon wine which grows, as if by symbiosis, on the Thau foreshore. Jean-Michel and Jacqui prefer the classic cut of Chablis in winter. Of late, though, the start to the meal has been fired with a magnum of Bollinger: my payment for judging an annual wine-list competition in Australia. Having managed to hoard three, we always drink the one with an extra two years' bottle age.

Only ... it will all be different this year. August was so hot and windless that the Bassin de Thau suffered a kind of heatstroke called malaïgue ('bad water' in Occitan): white algae dye the lagoon, which deoxygenates. Onethird of the oyster crop and all of the mussels were lost after eight days during which the water never dropped below 29°C: a disaster for local growers and the 3,000 seafood jobs the lagoon supports. In any case, work has taken Jacqui, Jean-Michel and the boys back to Martinique for a year or two. Oysters and the Bollinger are on hold while we head back to the familiarity of turkey, sprouts and claret – and family of the un-improvised kind.

Oysters and Champagne

'Good with oysters'

Passionate epicureans, the Beyer family of Alsace believe their wine goes so well with oysters that they even named a cuvée especially Riesling Les Ecaillers, Léon Beyer You don't need to judge a wine competition in Australia to get your hands on a magnum of Bollinger, their Special Cuvée Brut NV is available online and if you're a classic Chablis lover, look no further than our Society's Chablis with matching oyster label. Finally, from vineyards neighbouring the beleaguered Bassin de Thau, The Society's Picpoul de Pinet will go just as well with our local oysters.

Andrew Jefford is an award-winning writer and broadcaster with a regular blog and column in Decanter magazine and contributing editor for the World of fine Wine magazine. Based in France, Andrew travels widely for his work and will be keeping us posted with updates from his life in the Languedoc and abroad in this regular The View from Here column.

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